Film Review: “Slumdog Millionaire”

Quick take: A very compelling film, if not quite the upbeat story I’d been led to expect.
Closest equivalent:  “Life Is Beautiful,” the feel-good film about the Holocaust (Italy, 1998). 

Slow take:
I don’t like to read reviews before seeing a movie for myself, but in this case, I do wish I’d read beyond the one-line review excerpts or that someone had told me how grueling it is to watch “Slumdog Millionaire.”  This “rare feel-good movie” (Village Voice), this “buoyant hymn to life and a movie to celebrate” (TIME magazine), starts with a torture scene and proceeds through murders, mob violence, rape, child maiming, and multiple assaults.  I suppose anyone who’d seen Danny Boyle’s earlier film Trainspotting wouldn’t have been shocked; I hadn’t, so I was.  One of my companions actually had to leave her seat halfway through the film, it was that intense.

Jamal is a young boy from the Mumbai slums who’s on a winning streak in “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?”  He’s just about to win the big prize when he is accused of cheating. No one believes an uneducated tea-boy could get so many answers right. 

In fact, there’s a harrowing story behind every one of his correct answers, and the movie is a series of flashbacks that tells his story and appears to illuminate the life of India’s poor children.  Along the way Jamal, his brother Salim, and their friend and eventual love interest Latika find themselves caught up in every “issue” you’ve ever heard about in India: prostitution, Hindu-Muslim violence, mafia-type gangs, call centers, children crippled so that they can earn more money begging, etc.  

So are we getting a skillfully woven portrait of an oppressed class, or a series of stereotypical situations strung together with lovely camerawork?  Hmmm.  As I was watching, it all felt very real, through the magic of cinema.  Now, through the equal magic of writing/reflecting, I’m aware of a sense of feeling somewhat manipulated.

In between these flashbacks, we see what looks like all of India, but especially poor folks, clustered around TV screens cheering Jamal on through the answers. These bits at least feel realistic.  Nowadays it’s just another game show, but I remember when “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire” first aired in the U.S. and was such a sensation here. In India the show is called “Kaun Banega Crorepati,” and the first episodes were hosted by the most famous man in India, the actor Amitabh Bachchan.  We watched it on satellite tv and the thrill factor came all the way through the invisible airwaves, amplified by the clear love and devotion that the contestants and studio audiences had for their host.  (Regis, eat your heart out.)  In India “Crorepati” was huge huge huge, and the top prize was 1 crore, which is 10,000,000 rupees (10 million rupees or the fantastic sum of $200,000).  

“Slumdog Millionaire” dispenses with currency conversion, replaces the beloved host with a sneering bad guy, and translates all of this into English. 

In fact, all of the characters, including the grown-up slum kids, appear to have learned to speak and read English flawlessly.  This requires considerable suspension of disbelief, especially because the older Jamal couldn’t shake his full-on British schoolboy accent, and the older Latika — who starts out as a medium-brown tough ‘n’ scruffy ghetto girl — is a very light-skinned model acting in her first film, whose performance makes her more or less interchangeable with dozens of other Bollywood starlets.

But the younger children who play Jamal and Latika in the flashback sequences speak only Hindi.  That’s because these young actors really come from the slums. About a third of the script was rewritten from English to Hindi to accommodate them, according to the New York Times interview with the director.  Apparently teaching the children enough English to say their lines would have been more ridiculous than asking the audience to believe they just picked up perfect English somewhere along the way, despite a full schedule that includes hustling, begging, starving, and joining and fleeing gangs.

A lot of movies shot in India use very poor children, non-actors who give amazing performances that stun critics and audiences.  These kids are no exception; they’re stunning to watch.  I recently saw “The Terrorist,” a really beautiful and amazing South Indian film from 1999, where almost all of the parts were played by children, non-actors, who were just luminescent.  Is it immersion in Bollywood from infancy that makes Indian children so amazing on screen?

But I do wonder what kind of compensation these children receive, and whether it’s anywhere near a fair trade.  Are a few hot meals, maybe some money, and a little taste of glamor and fame enough? Is anything done to actually improve their lives and the lives of their families and communities?  Recently the makers of a 2005 documentary, “Born into Brothels,” about children growing up in Calcutta’s red-light district, were apparently sued over alleged infringement of the children’s rights.  What’s the line between shedding light on someone’s story, and exploiting it?  

That last question is something I’ve thought a lot about, with regard to telling my family’s story in Leaving India (although I didn’t interview children).  I don’t know if there’s a right answer; even if you give someone a chance to sign a release and give consent, there may be times when they don’t know enough about their options to choose.  Certainly a kid from Dharavi isn’t going to have someone negotiating a contract in his or her best interests the way that, say, a Little Miss Sunshine is.  And how much difference does it make whether the resulting work is a marginal indie documentary or a runaway mainstream success?

If nothing else — and it is a lot else — “Slumdog Millionaire” made me go Hmmm.  If you see it, I’d love to know what you thought.